Chapter 31a. of the Shabbat treaty in the Talmud gives us several examples of how Hillel related to the Gentiles, his non-Jewish neighbors. A first story tells of two Gentiles who had bet 400 Zuz to see who could make Hillel angry. One of them came shouting into Hillel’s house and asked him: “Why are Babylonians’ heads oval- shaped?” He said this to him, seeking to insult him, since Hillel was Babylonian. “Great question”, Hillel replied. “The answer is that they don’t have good midwives who know how to shape the child’s head at birth.” The man returned an hour later and asked Hillel: ”Why do Tadmor residents have watery eyes?” Hillel said to him: “You have asked an important question. The reason is because they live among the sands and the sand gets into their eyes”. Again, the man left, waited an hour, came back and asked: “Why do Africans have wide feet?” Hillel said to him: “You have asked another important question. The reason is because they live in swamps and their feet widened to allow them to walk in those wet areas.” The angry man said to him: “Because of you, I lost 400 Zuz.” Hillel said: “Listen to your spirit and avoid these situations, you can bet another 400 Zuz and still Hillel will not be angry.”
But the best-known story is the one from which this weekly column takes its name. It is written: “There was another incident that involved a Gentile who appeared before Shammai and said to him: “Convert me under the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai, a builder by trade, pushed him away with the measuring ruler in his hand.
The same man came before Hillel, asking to be converted under the same condition. Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another; that’s the whole Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study”. Hillel simply followed what is written in Leviticus 19:34: “As the native among you, you will be to the stranger who dwells with you and will love him as you, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. ”
This precept of Judaism, the famous “golden rule”, is also found in verse 19:18 of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Why did Hillel choose this precept and not another? Judaism has two important verses and both claim to be fulfilled equally. One is in Deuteronomy 6: 5: “And you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” The second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Why did Hillel not mention to the Gentile the precept of loving God? Perhaps Hillel thought that, if he only had the chance to teach one of the two, God would be more interested in people getting along with each other than dedicating themselves to worshiping Him.
Hillel’s words have more than a single teaching. Openness to receive the other, ethics as the central value of the religious, interpretation as an antidote to the dogmatic and constant study as a way of life. Hillel taught us all of this while standing on one foot.
By Marcos Gojman
Bibliography: Rabbi Benjamin Blech: “Understanding Judaism” and the Talmud, Shabbat Treaty 31a.